Working with words

Prize-winning novelist Karin Lowachee (BA ’95), information technology sales and business development enthusiast Greg Rusnell (BA ’95) and journalist/artist Oliver Girling (BA ’74) returned to the Department of English recently to talk to students, faculty and staff about careers for English graduates. Their visit proved that careers for English grads are both exciting and viable.



Above: From left to right, English graduates Greg Rusnell, Karin Lowachee and Oliver Girling

Professor Ruth Grogan, who chaired the event, said the talk arose out of a desire to alleviate some of the anxieties experienced by English majors (and their parents) about getting jobs after university. “English majors devote themselves to studying verbal artifices: poems, plays, novels, travel literature, literary essays, etc. While these things cannot be understood without their context in history, psychology, philosophy and cultures, it’s not always obvious how this kind of knowledge can be applied in ‘real life’.” said Grogan. “Often, it is only the traditional possibilities – teaching, journalism and law – that spring to mind.”

Careers for English Grads Speakers series, the annual event now in its second year, has featured speakers employed in a wide variety of professions. Each speaker has emphasized that their English studies have been crucial to the careers of their choosing, especially in developing their skills in critical analysis, writing and communication. “What also becomes obvious,” according to Grogan, “is that their studies have fostered just those qualities of self-assessment, adaptability, perseverance and intellectual vitality which are necessary for finding or constructing a worthwhile job.”

This was easily demonstrated by the three panellists at the 2004 event, alumni Lowachee, Rusnell and Girling. Lowachee worked in adult education for nine months in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, a job that allowed her time to write. Her success as a writer is impressive. Her prize-winning novel, Warchild, now in its 4th printing, and recent sequel Burndive were fuelled by her studies in English and creative writing. Lowachee’s long-standing passion for writing, combined with her persistence, contributed greatly to the first publication of her work. “The field of writing is competitive. You need thick skin and have to be prepared for rejection,” she said. “You have to do your research, find out who is reputable and then keep at it.”

Rusnell considers his ability to listen well – a skill honed through his studies as an English major – a crucial part of his success as an information technology (IT) sales professional: “You have to listen to your clients, your prospective clients, and you have to listen well. If you don’t provide them with what they are asking for, somebody else will.” Rusnell works for Iconomics Inc., a Toronto IT company that specializes in technical architecture and business intelligence applications.

Girling credits a good set of writing skills with his ability to enjoy a varied career. “This will set up the English graduate to do anything the heart desires. I know it’s usually the meta-languages and the technologies that we are hearing about, but never forget that English is, foremost, a magnificent instrument for the expression of ideas. It’s the reason I’ve never wanted to leave it alone, that I continue in the journalist game; and now, it’s up to all of you to enjoy it and to be inspired by the possibilities of what it can offer.” Girling’s success has allowed him to work as a journalist, painter, graphic artist, teacher, curator and political cartoonist. His byline has appeared in The Globe & Mail, Eye Weekly and NOW magazine.

Several students and faculty who attended the event engaged in a lively question and answer period following the panel discussion. Faculty of Arts Associate Dean Heather Campbell said, “It’s most encouraging for our undergraduates, and their parents, to be reminded that there are so many opportunities for fascinating and fulfilling work open to people with degrees in the liberal arts.”

York’s new executive director of Alumni & Advancement Services, Naguib Gouda, was impressed with both the event and its panellists. “Events like these are a great way for York alumni to engage meaningfully with our current students. Mentoring and networking are two key areas I expect will be an important focus as we move forward to create more successful programs.”

Jen Sipos, manager of communications & public relations for the Faculty of Arts, sent YFile this report.